Though the department has been tight-lipped about the report’s contents, contributors anticipate the first U.S. ranking will be favorable. But some say such good news would reflect a bias in this notoriously political document.
“From what I’ve seen, we should be on the watch list,” said Nathan Wilson, CEO of Project Meridian Foundation, an organization that trains officials in how to deal with human trafficking. “I’m not expecting the annual report to reflect the true situation.”
The annual report has been around since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, a result of then First Lady Hillary Clinton shining a light onto the global issue during the 1990s, when the transnational crime is believed to have grown exponentially.
Trafficked humans often start their journeys in a consensual arrangement where they pay to get smuggled into the United States, but often end up working for years in jobs where they are exploited or even beaten, imprisoned and sexually abused.
The State Department has ranked a growing number of countries in their efforts to prevent and address human trafficking. Information in the report comes from law enforcement officials, non-governmental organizations and state and local governments. The report then categorizes 175 countries into tiers.
- Tier 1 countries meet the minimum requirements outlined in the TVPA.
- Tier 2, generally the largest category, includes countries making some effort to combat human trafficking, but are not meeting all TVPA requirements.
- Tier 2 Watch List countries have major trafficking problems or have had a recent backslide on prevention efforts.
- Tier 3 countries have a long way to go in their efforts to combat human trafficking.
Thousands – conservatively estimated at 14,500 to 17,500 – of foreigners are trafficked into the United States every year. Yet, up until this point, the global report has addressed the problem in the U.S. by attaching the Department of Justice’s report as an addendum. The U.S. was left out of the ranking system, thus making a direct and similar comparison to other countries impossible.
Conjuring notions of a foreign land, sex and children, experts agree that human trafficking remains generally misunderstood in the U.S. Half of human trafficking cases do not explicitly involve sex, and many people assume that because the U.S. has robust law enforcement and social services available, victims will have a way out, Austin said.
“It’s psychological,” she said, explaining that many victims feel helpless and unable to break free of captivity even if they are not physically forced to stay. “People may have options, but they don’t think they do.”
Two recent cases presented at the Department of Justice’s 2010 National Conference on Human Trafficking demonstrated the nature of the half of U.S. trafficking cases that fall in the labor category.
They’re as ubiquitous as hotel cleaning and nannying, and as American as South Dakota and Texas.
U.S. v. Farrell and U.S. v. Nanji both cast U.S. trafficking as a modern form of forced labor thrust upon unsuspecting people and perpetuated by ignorance of rights and mounting fabricated debt, experts explained.
Human trafficking in the U.S. is less about the stereotype of duping and kidnapping and more about coercion, said Ambassador Luis CdeBaca of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in his opening remarks at the conference.
In the Farrell’s case, a husband and wife operated a South Dakota Comfort Inn behind what Michael Frank, trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division Criminal Section, called a “cloak of legitimacy.” Frank described a situation that looked fine on the surface – a large corporation where the defendants called Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents asking the workers to be removed.
But beneath the surface of happy employees and copies of paychecks. officials found a sordid operation where Filipino workers felt so entrapped by false debt that they returned to their payless jobs even after leaving the country.
“They feared for their lives,” Frank said.
But after the recent trial and sentencing, the trafficking victims are living happily in the U.S., Frank said, and Mr. and Mrs. Farrell are serving sentences of 5 and 3 years.
Unlike the case against the Farrells, only one Nigerian woman was involved in U.S. v. Nanji. Trial attorney Susan French’s defendant was a Nigerian mother held captive by a Texa_s couple who forced her to care for their children for eight years, seven days a week, sending what totaled around $300 back home to Nigeria.
The defendant put up with the children sleeping in her room, separation from her own children and rape, but eventually forced sodomy was too much for her, French said.
The Nanjis were found guilty on all accounts and are awaiting sentencing.
From a public health and human rights standpoint, this is a national security issue, CdeBaca said.
Experts expect that ranking U.S. efforts to prevent and deal with cases such as these will legitimize the issue of trafficking in the U.S. and expose the weaknesses in the system.
“It is significant that United States is including itself in the ranking. Other people might say it’s just a gesture or symbolic, but it shows we are willing to look at ourselves critically – showing others that we are holding ourselves to the same standards,” Andrea Austin, spokeswoman for Polaris Project said.